New BJJ Black Belts In Their Sixties Explain How They Persevered!
Recently we shared with you the stories of New BJJ Black Belts Allen Spindel and Tom Ficarotta. These gentleman fought against the odds to obtain this coveted rank at the ages of 62 and 61. We sat down with Allen and Tom to learn their story so that they could share their wisdom with those who may think that it is too late to start practicing BJJ. The transcript is below for your reading pleasure!
How did you first hear about Jiu Jitsu? What inspired you to want to be a practitioner being an older guy? How long have you been training?
Tom: I first heard about BJJ many years ago when I was just a teenager training in traditional martial arts. However, my first real glimpse of BJJ was Royce Gracie during the original cage fighting years ago. That was my real introduction to BJJ and I was very impressed the way he handled the other martial artist. I’ve been training in martial arts since I was a kid, probably eight or nine years old. Being an older guy didn’t stop me from training and I still feel the same way when I train BJJ. I don’t train any differently and that’s pretty much it. Martial arts are a part of my life, a big part of my life. I’ve been training about 6 years at BJJ when I received my black belt.
Allen: I heard about BJJ when I first saw the ultimate fighting championship when Royce Gracie was upside down executing an arm bar and his opponent tapped out. I had no idea what happened, until days later, I found out he did an arm bar. That really excited me. What inspired me being an older guy was that BJJ was positioned as a martial art for the weaker, smaller opponent. I have been training about 9 ½ years in BJJ before received my black belt.
Tell us about your academy, location the Sensei, the class makeup, BJJ only or MMA?
Tom: My academy is located at 650 Broadway in New York City. The Sensei is Josh Griffiths of Clockwork BJJ. He was an elite competitor, and now he’s focused mainly on teaching. The class is primarily a BJJ class made up of men and women of all ages. There are kids classes; a women only class, a competition class and a very diverse bunch of people train there. http://clockworkbjj.com/
Allen: There are students from all walks of life. We have doctors, lawyers, millionaires, waiters, cooks, personal trainers, teachers, and college students. Many of the students that attend our academy would never cross paths if it weren’t for the fact that we all train in BJJ. In fact, I never would have met my friend for life Tom, if it were not for the fact that we both attend the same BJJ academy.
Have you trained any other martial arts prior?
Tom: I have trained in several martial arts. I started boxing when I was 8, Tae Kwon Do when I was 12 and Japanese karate. By the time I was 17 or 18, I had studied several different styles. I achieved a third degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and I trained in several different styles of Kung Fu. I was the co-owner of the Shaolin Hung Gar Kung Fu center in Nyack New York. I reached master level in Kung Fu and had a school for approximately 6 years. As my family grew, I had to put martial arts and teaching on the back burner and focus more and work.
Allen: I trained in Korean styles, including Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido for approximately 10 years collectively when I was in college and then moved to California and reached the level of first-degree black belt in Hapkido.
How does it feel to be the oldest guy in class and how do you cope with being smashed by younger, stronger guys?
Tom: Obviously, it doesn’t feel good being the oldest guy in class. I don’t think it feels good being the oldest guy anywhere. You know, as far as rolling and competing with the younger guys, I credit that to conditioning and staying in shape and keeping my body strong. I feel very competitive regardless of my age against anybody my size or any size. I feel like I can still be competitive.
Allen: There are days when I walk up the stairs to class and think to myself, how can I actually train with these younger guys. Not a day goes by that I don’t lose my confidence initially. However, once we shake hands and begin to roll, I rely 100% on technique. I have yet to be smashed by a younger and stronger guy who was a lower belt than me. There are black belts there that are younger and stronger and yes they smash me. But that’s a good thing because I certainly learn where the holes in my game are. As far as the blue, purple and brown belts that are younger and stronger than me, I am actually able to not only manage their strength, speed and athleticism, I am able to execute my techniques efficiently and effectively and submit many of them.
What happens when another older guy joins your academy, do you instantly bond?
Tom: When another older guy joins the academy, yes, it’s always exciting and it’s nice to have some older guys training. I try to bring them on board and train with them and keep them close to me. As far as instantly bonding, sometimes you do instantly bond with someone, like anything else, it takes time. It all depends on the person, the way your personalities match up. It’s great to see older guys join and Allen and I both love to bring them on board and train with them and keep them with us if we can.
Allen: When an older guy joins the academy, the first things I do are run over there and introduce myself and shake their hand and pop a big smile. I say to Tom and myself; here comes another old guy to train with. When Tom first joined the academy, for some reason, we instantly bonded. Maybe because we were the same age, or one year apart, maybe because we are both Libras, maybe because we both trained in martial arts before and have the same objective and same philosophy about being the old guys training with young guys. For the first six months, Tom and I would do the drills together and make sure we had the first roll and the last roll together so we could talk and share about the day’s lesson. We found ourselves staying after class for 15 or 20 minutes every day and reviewing the day’s lesson and tweaking it to our body types.
You have more life experience than those 30 to 40 years younger than yourself. Does this help or hinder the humbling experience of practicing BJJ?
Tom: Having 30 or 40 years life experience more than the other guys actually helps with the humbling experience of practicing BJJ. The ego is not as large as when you were younger, you tend to rationalize better and you slow the whole game down a little more mentally, not physically when you’re older. You are able to understand your body better. When you are young, you fight out of emotion and energy. As you get older, you fight more out of wisdom and experience and it does help to have those 30 to 40 years of life experience more than the younger guys do.
Allen: Yes, it does help to have more life experience than the younger guys because you understand the philosophy and principles of BJJ that goes like this; tap today-trained tomorrow.
Are injuries are concerned at your age since the recovery process slows over time?
Tom: Injuries are a concern at this age and are a concern at any age. I think the biggest thing about injuries that I can say being older, is not so much they take longer to heal, it seems when you’re younger those injuries permanently go away. They don’t reoccur as quickly. But now when you get injured as an older practitioner, they seem to occur more often if you don’t let them heal properly. That’s another thing being older. I like to train through my minor injuries. I don’t think my body can take the time off than when I was younger to heal. I prefer to train through my minor injuries and keep my timing and my endurance level high, so when I come back, I’m not coming back from an injury at 62 or 63 or 64 years old. When you’re 18, it’s easy to come back at 19 or 20. You don’t have those options when you get older. I found in many circumstances when I’m injured, I’m able to train around those injuries and it actually makes you a better practitioner. I do different movements and different things when I’m injured than when I would normally do when I’m not. You learn a lot of different moves and it expands your game.
Allen: Injuries are a very big concern for me at my age. Because of all the years of training in martial arts and other sports, I found that the slightest movement the wrong way when I’m training be BJJ can injure me. I have knee issues, shoulder issues, back issues, neck issues and abdominal concerns. As Tom said, if I get injured at age 62 and need surgery, I’ll be out for one or two years and during those one or two years of being out, my fitness level, endurance and conditioning can prohibit me from ever coming back to training in BJJ again. I am so careful when I do train with younger, stronger and faster guys, that if they do attack the legs and attempt a knee bar, I quickly tap out and they are surprised. I have to explain to them that although they didn’t execute that knee bar fully and I could have defended it properly, because I don’t want any major surgery, I quickly tap out. After the roll, I explained to them that yes I could have put my free foot on their back and pushed to free my trapped leg and escaped the knee bar, but I chose to tap to make sure I don’t get injured.
Do you get frustrated knowing that your technique might be better than the younger guys but because they are faster and stronger, they might tap you?
Tom: I really haven’t reached any level of frustration being tapped by younger guys. I feel competitive both technically and physically so the question is does being tapped by younger guys frustrate me? I haven’t felt that much difference between the younger guys and the older guys. Skill is skill and technique is technique. When you roll with younger guys you learn to manage their speed, but then there’s technical speed that older guys have which evens it out. So no I haven’t been overwhelmed by anybody of any age.
Allen: There are very few guys or girls at our academy that tap me out because they are younger, stronger and faster than me. When I first started and was a white belt and even into blue belt, I might have felt a bigger gap knowing that these younger guys might tap me. It was perfectly fine that they tapped me because of age and strength. As I began to advance in rank, beginning at purple belt, I realized that my technique at my age overcame their strength and athleticism and I was not being tapped by the under belts as much anymore. Now as a new black belt, it’s very rare that I train with somebody who at any age, I cannot manage. Unless they are over 250 pounds and a professional football player, which we have two of, I’m not in any danger of being tapped anymore. Again, if they do, it’s totally cool and we simply reset and continue. I make sure that I position myself very quickly and very efficiently to where I’m in a defensive controlled position and I use pure technique to manage their speed and strength.
Have you competed in tournaments? If so, at what division and how did you do?
Tom: As far as tournaments go, I did a lot of karate tournaments and I competed from the time I was 12 to my mid-30s and then I took almost 20 years off from martial arts and stayed in shape. As far as be BJJ goes, I went into the Pan Am’s in 2013 and I got bronze. I had a couple of matches and fought some very good competitors. In fact, I competed against a gentleman who won his division for the last two years. I did okay and it was the masters 4 because they didn’t have any age group for master 6. You can watch the videotapes of our matches on www.pappytapinc.com. They were interesting matches and I did lose but I was very competitive. I still feel competitive and I intend to compete in the future. I have a full-time job right now and hopefully that will end soon and I will be retiring in two years and maybe spend more time competing.
Allen: When I first began training in BJJ, I was a conditioning coach at a public high school and formed a BJJ after school club. The high school students competed regularly and encouraged me to compete. I’ve competed in 4 BJJ tournaments so far at the masters 4 and one tournament at the masters 3. I managed to win a medal in all 4 tournaments mainly because of my conditioning and hustle. I found the skill level of my competitors were actually better than my skill level to be totally honest. At the time, I was teaching high school students and was conditioning and training with them after school, in addition to training at Clockwork BJJ in the 6:30 am morning class, which might have given me a slight advantage in terms of conditioning and hustle. Now at the Masters 6 black belt level, I plan on competing 3 to 4 times a year just to test myself and see where I rank in the food chain.
How many days per week do you train?
Tom: I train between four and five days a week at BJJ and try to train as much as I can. On my days off, I rest or if I feel energetic, I might do some type of conditioning, whether it’s strength training like natural body exercises such as push-ups, pull ups, dips or maybe I’ll do some conditioning on the spinning bike or walking and running. I am training BJJ 4 to 5 days a week right now.
Allen: I train in BJJ 4 to 5 times a week during the noon class. On the weekends, I’ll do conditioning that I believe complements my BJJ training such as 30 to 45 minutes on the spinning bike and for the last 10 minutes of that work out, I’ll do interval training. I’ll do 30 seconds of high-intensity on the spinning cycle and 30 seconds of lower intensity, which I call active rest.
Do you see yourself training 10 years from now and what do you picture that being like?
Tom: Absolutely, I have no intention of stopping training. I’ve been a martial artist most of my adult life that goes back to my childhood and that won’t change. I hope to be more technical and I hope not to be that much slower or weaker and I don’t see why I would. I haven’t seen a significant change in my body since the time I started BJJ and even from my 30s until now. I’m hoping the next 10 years, eliminating any illnesses, I should still be strong, more skilled, and hopefully in great shape. So no, I intend to continue exactly the same way I train now and nothing different.
Allen: I see myself training in the next 10 years the same way I’m training now. When I pair up with a partner and shake hands, if they know me, then they know I train at 50 to 60% of my maximum output. If they don’t know me I tell them my middle name is 50%. Meaning, I basically only use pure technique. I’ve learned that technique overcomes everything and all shortcomings. As long as my body holds up and it appears I’m as strong now at age 62 than I was at age 40. I don’t see why if I continue to train at 50 to 60% of my maximum output so I don’t get injured, I can train for the next 10 years if not the next 20 to 25 years.
Did your Sensei promote you to black belt because he felt sorry for you, or do you believe at your age you are as proficient as the 30-year-old?
Tom: Well as far as my Sensei promoting me because he’ll felt sorry for us, I can’t even answer that. No way – no how did I get my black belt because our Sensei Josh felt sorry for us. He runs a very disciplined school and especially when it comes to rank. Black belt means a lot to him, he just doesn’t give them away. We earned it, we train very hard, with very competitive students and everyone in the school regardless of their age. Age is not in the equation and it’s never mentioned when we roll. They roll as hard as they do with us as they do with anybody else in the school. There are no breaks and I don’t know too many BJJ enthusiasts who give other guys breaks when they train. Basically, I feel we earned black belt.
Allen: The first day after I received a black belt, I had a lot of questions and thoughts about why Sensei promoted Tom and I to black belt. I sort of did a rewind of all the years I’ve been training and ask myself how did I do against the younger, stronger and more athletic guys. They were times it I did horribly, there were times I did unbelievable techniques and moves against these guys that surprised everyone, including myself. During the Wednesday no-gi class, we do stand up. I say to myself, how can a 62-year-old guy do takedowns against the 30-year-old former high school wrestler. When that 30-year-old former wrestler goes to take me down, there’s a moment in time that he exposes a weakness. At that point, since Tom and I have 30 to 40 years of life experience, I have a split second to reverse the situation, change my level and extend my leg and counter his takedown. When that happens, since we are sort of a family, everybody laughs and claps and encourages me and smiles. It’s one of the most gratifying experiences somebody my age can have. So, I believe Sensei Josh Griffiths made the right decision in promoting Tom and I to black belt. We always stay after class and review the day’s lesson and drill and drill and drill. When all the young guys and gals are in the locker room getting dressed taking showers and leaving, Tom and I are on the mats perfecting our technique. We work harder, smarter, more efficient than anybody else in the academy. We’ve been told that by many of the students and that makes us believe and feel and realize that earning a black belt at our age and our skill level was the right decision.
How do you think the younger guy feels when they get tapped by someone 20 to 30 years their senior?
Tom: I think early on in our training there might’ve been a little resentment. I’ve heard the younger guys say they don’t like getting tapped by somebody as old as their grandfather or father, but after you’re in the school for years with the same guys and they see how hard you work, your just another guy. A tap is a tap at the end of the day. I don’t think anybody likes to get tapped by anybody regardless of the age, but I guess it’s a little disheartening when someone older taps you, but it’s also encouraging to the younger guys. I tell them all the time when you’re 30 or 40, I used to think I was old. And I didn’t realize how young I was. So I hope at the end of the day, we are not discouraging, but encouraging to the younger guys. You can do this and you can be tapping guys 20 to 30 years younger than you when you’re 50, 60 or 70 years old. That’s the example that we are now setting in our academy.
Allen: I know that when we pair up to train with younger guys, they all look at me and say, wow… here comes an easy roll. Once we begin to roll and I use my technique and skill and experience against them and sweep them, take their back, or submit them, they don’t resent the fact that we are 20 to 30 years their senior. They actually admire it because they know that not only does BJJ work, but also they know that there is no end game and when their 50, 60 or 70, they’ll be tapping the younger guys and know exactly how we feel.
Outside of Jiu Jitsu, who are you?
Tom: Outside of BJJ, I am a construction supervisor, full-time worker, and a happily married man. That is one of the keys to being a good martial artist and good in anything, as you need stability in your house. I’m with the same woman for over 40 years and have three beautiful daughters. They are my strength and now my support system. Without them, it would’ve been difficult. They pump me up one when I’m getting a flat tire.
Allen: Outside of BJJ, I am a retired NYC public high school physical education teacher and Chief Operating Officer for my wife’s Internet Company. It keeps my mind and body working together. I’m married to the same woman for over 30 years and have two beautiful daughters. My household is very busy and active and I will never be bored. It took my wife many years to understand my love and passion for BJJ, and now my wife and daughters support me 100%. Without their support, I would never be where I am in life today.
What are your plans for the future?
Tom: I’d like to retire from construction work in the near future. I’m just about at that age where it seems to work out. I would like to teach BJJ and teach all martial arts in general. My goal is to be teaching, competing, and enjoying life. That is the future for me.
Allen: I’m sort of living in the future now because I’m retired from public service as a teacher and I work in my wife’s company on a virtual level, meaning, I can work anywhere any time completing my responsibilities. The future for me is being able to hold on to the lifestyle that I have now in terms of training and competing, being with my family and realizing how lucky I am for having the lifestyle that I have.
Thank you very much gentlemen for taking the time to share your story with wbbjj.com!
Hope you enjoyed the interview!